My youngest son is a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania. If you donâ€™t know where Albania is, no worries. I didnâ€™t either. Once he was assigned, though, our family became experts on this Eastern European country half a world away. Heâ€™s been gone two years now and still has a year and will serve another two months. Over the years, our Skype talks, IMs and emails are filled with interesting information. These conversations go something like this:
Me: Are you warm?
Eric: Itâ€™s below freezing. Thereâ€™s a hole in the wall of my apartment where the chimney for a heating stove is supposed to go, but birds are living there. The landlord doesnâ€™t want to disturb the birds.
Me: Heâ€™d rather you freeze to death?
Eric: I put a piece of cardboard over the hole and turn on my cooking stove to keep warm. I moved the couch to the kitchen, and I sleep on it. With my clothes on. And my hat. Itâ€™s only a little below freezing.
Me: But are you warm?
At that point the conversation veers away from the topic of how a California boy survived two brutal Albanian winters. Heâ€™s 26, this is his adventure, and he doesnâ€™t need mom to remind him to put on his galoshes. He also doesnâ€™t want to waste precious time discussing the temperature. When the intermittent electricity and Internet connection allow, our conversations are peppered with pictures of the scorpions he finds in his boots and bed in the summer, the gunfire he hears that no one pays attention to, and the cows he chases down the street simply because they are there and he is young and hungry for all experiences. I hear about the â€˜grandmothersâ€™ in his town who have adopted him, the students who want to learn English, and the kindness of people who share what they have.
Then there are those personal conversations between my playwright son and me. We cross the miles with talk of family, futures, writing, disappointments, happy times and revelations. Sometimes words fail us, and that is not unusual for those who make their living writing them. The enormity of a thought is hard to express in pixels or through jerky images on a screen; it needs hands and facial expressions and the intensity of real proximity to make a thought understood. Often words escape us because what we are thinking seems insignificant, too small to waste precious time on. English, for all its energy, can be limiting; Albanian, for all its convolution is not.
Which brings me to the new words I learned: mal and mertiz. In this intricate language that my son attacked and conquered with relish, all words have many meanings. Mal translates to both nostalgia and mountain. That seemed so right to me. We all have a mountain of nostalgia that has pushed through the ground of our lives and built upon itself. There are crevices where regret is caught and great bold faces slick with the memories of life-changing events; there are crags and fissures of reminiscences covered with clouds of wistfulness and longing. One day that mountain of memories can be comforting and the next overwhelming â€“ it all depends on the light in which we view it and the place on which we stand at any given moment.
Mertiz is the Albanian word for upset, lonely and bored. That, too, seems just right. If we are at odds-and-ends, uncomfortable in our own skin with boredom or loneliness, are we not upset and anxious? It is really kind of neat to tie so much turmoil together in one word. Mertizis not to be confused with anger or frustration; it is much more subtle than that and infinitely more dramatic.
I am grateful to know that this feeling I have been harboring for the last two years is simply mertiz, a loneliness for my far-away son, a restlessness that he is not here to talk to me about our shared passion for writing, a twinge of disappointment that he is not sitting at my table eating food I made for him. But I see that mertiz leads to mal. If I am upset and anxious that my child is freezing, if I am bored because I miss the talks late into the night, the hugs he never failed to give, that only means my mountain has grown. See that new foothold up near the peak? It is mal for the boy who once needed me to keep him warm and now simply needs me to talk to him in a new vocabulary that really just says we miss one another.